Before the barbell, which goes back to about 1850, came a list of tools soldiers and athletes have used to become stronger: apart from their weapons, armors and own bodyweight, training was carried out with rocks, sandbags, logs, clubs and weights with a handle.
Analysis of literature and museum archival material shows that kettlebells have been known as far back as ancient Greece.
At the museum Olympia in Greece, it is possible to see a stone kettlebell weighing 143 kg, with the following words carved in it “Bibon heaved up me above the head by one hand”.
Think about it for a while: no advanced knowledge of sport science, no supplements, no fancy equipment…
The kettlebell design may have evolved over the years, but weights with a handle have left their trace in the heritage of many countries across the ancient world, from Scotland to Turkey, Iran, China and even Japan.
For centuries, lifting weights were part of programs at folk festivals and it became an integral part of the culture of the working class. Indeed, with weights being commonplace in daily lives, impromptu competitions to display strength were to be expected when people gathered. As a testimony, throwing and lifting heavy weight still makes for good entertainment.
The development of trade and metallurgy lead to the slow evolution of the modern kettlebell. A handle made it easy to lift compact weights around the marketplace and flour mills, as can be seen in the pictures below.
Through 1870 to 1880, Doctor V. Kraevsky from St Petersburg gathered all sort of information about physical culture and the development of sports through his travels across Europe. His goal was to improve health and well being for the masses through physical culture. He introduced exercises with kettlebells and barbells to the Russian athletic circles in 1885 by opening the first weight training facility in Russia.10 year later, following Kraevsky’s example ,another doctor (E.F.Garnich-Garnitsky) opened an athletic club in Kiev, Ukraine. Members of the group engaged in wrestling, gymnastics, exercises with barbells and kettlebells.
By the early 1900’s, circus performer, physical culturists and strong men from around the world trained with kettlebells. While kettlebells slowly disappeared in the West in the second half of the century, they began to flourish in the former Soviet Union. Everyone from common people, to the military, to Olympic athletes trained with kettlebells.
Cheap to produce, easy to carry around, versatile and near indestructible, the Russian military and government came to realize the potential benefits of the humble kettlebell and spread their use across the nation.
During Soviet times, Girevoy sport spread in rural areas, in factories, among students, the Army and Navy. (To give an idea, in the 80’s about 100000 kettlebells were produced in 86 factories.)
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In 1948, the first official kettlebell sport competition took place in Russia where the most repetitions, not 1 rep strength, made you champion. It was attended by 55 athletes, participating in 4 weight categories. Disciplines were: snatch and jerk with 32kg bells, and barbell press and barbell jerk.
- -60kg, Konavolov, 28 snatches, 7 jerks
- 70kg, Salomaha, 23 snatches, 15 jerks
- 80kg, Lavrentev, 30 snatches, 13 jerks
- >80kg, Bolshakov, 33 snatches, 19 jerks
Kettlebells went from being used for general physical conditioning and all sorts of stunts to being a sport of its own. The needs for specific sport specialization lead to the modern competition kettlebell making its appearance in the 60’s. Those bells are hollow and made of steel, and have the advantage of coming in one standard size, regardless of the weight.
The modern history of GS begins in 1962 with the unification of rules.
Back then Gireviks competed in 3 disciplines with no time limits: the press, the jerk and the snatch. Although a one hand switch was already enforced for the snatch, the bell was allowed to be dropped into the rack position as in a half snatch, providing a better resting position than a lockout.
By 1974, GS had been officially declared the ethnic sport of Russia.
A new development appeared in 1985 to further popularize GS: the first championship of the USSR and the introduction of the title “Master of Sports”. Master of sports in Russia is a prestigious title, entitling athletes from all types of sports to some state funded sponsorship.
Under the new rules, only biathlon (jerk and snatch) were competed in. Like in weight lifting, the press was abandoned. Originally a slow movement, by the mid 70s the pressing technique used by gireviks resorted to a powerful thoracic extension and momentum. Judging disagreements and the fact that competitions were taking too much time marked the death of the press and the birth of the modern biathlon.
The current competition time limit rule of 10 minutes was installed in 1989. Over the years some rules were eliminated. For example, today you are no longer allowed to rest in a hang position, or use small swings between reps in the snatch and long cycle.
In 1992, under the initiative of the Baltic countries, the European Union of Weightball Lifting (This organization would later on lead to a split and creation of the International Union of Kettlebell Lifting in the late 2007) was created, and with it the first European Championship took place that year.
The first kettlebell biathlon World championships were held in Lipetz 1993 with 96 participating athletes from 5 countries.
The first kettlebell long cycle championships were held in St Petersburg in 1998.
Women were allowed to compete in snatch for the first time in 1999 in Kaluga. 1999 was also the year that Sergey Rachinskiy introduced team relay events.
Kettlebell juggling was introduced in the late 90s a way to promote cultural heritage and popularize Kettlebells.